Nearly 60 percent of all Google Android devices that recently accessed the Android Market are running Android version 2.1 or 2.2, according to an online dashboard Google provides to developers. It took nearly nine months since Android 2.0 was introduced, but more than half of those frequenting the Android Market have the most recent and polished versions of Google’s mobile platform. Mashable notes that 18.9 percent of handsets still run the original Android 1.5 version, which is now four releases behind the most current version, known as Froyo. And as recently as March, Android devices were distributed fairly equally between versions 1.5, 1.6 and 2.x. Such fragmentation between different versions results in a varied user experience and applications that may not work across all Android devices.
While many consumers purchase a phone based on a hot new ad campaign and may not care about nor understand differences between the different Android versions, the fragmentation problem becomes evident when comparing different devices. My sister bought a Motorola Droid — then running Android 2.0 — just a few weeks before I bought my Nexus One in January. When she saw the interface tweaks on my handset, she wanted them. And she’s not the only one. I’ve read dozens of blog comments and forum posts of Android 1.5 or 1.6 handset owners wishing for an upgrade to gain the newer platform features and user interface optimizations. Eventually, the Droid did receive an upgrade to Android 2.1, but many handsets in the wild have no official upgrade path in their future.
From a developer’s standpoint, the shift towards a majority of phones running the most recent version of Android is a benefit. Each release of Google’s mobile operating system adds to the development API level by one, and programmers must specify the minimum API level required for any apps they code and release through the Android Market. API levels are forward compatible, but not backwards compatible. Effectively, platform fragmentation can lead to a developer coding software that only a small percentage of Android phones can use, which reduces potential audience and earnings.
The growth in devices running Android 2.1 is good for consumers and developers alike, but there’s another side to Android fragmentation that Google doesn’t control — custom interfaces, such as HTC Sense, Motorola’s Motoblur and Samsung’s TouchWiz. Each time Google updates Android, the handset-makers must spend development time and resources to re-integrate their customizations, which often leads to delays in platform upgrades — and additional fragmentation between Android versions. Without such control over the interface, consumers and developers still might find that their latest handset the most recent, nor is an application compatible with certain devices.
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